Religious Freedom

The Contested History of an American Ideal

By Tisa Wenger

312 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, notes, bibl., index, no illus

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3462-3
    Published: October 2017
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3463-0
    Published: August 2017

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Religious freedom is so often presented as a timeless American ideal and an inalienable right, appearing fully formed at the founding of the United States. That is simply not so, Tisa Wenger contends in this sweeping and brilliantly argued book. Instead, American ideas about religious freedom were continually reinvented through a vibrant national discourse--Wenger calls it “religious freedom talk”--that cannot possibly be separated from the evolving politics of race and empire.

More often than not, Wenger demonstrates, religious freedom talk worked to privilege the dominant white Christian population. At the same time, a diverse array of minority groups at home and colonized people abroad invoked and reinterpreted this ideal to defend themselves and their ways of life. In so doing they posed sharp challenges to the racial and religious exclusions of American life. People of almost every religious stripe have argued, debated, negotiated, and brought into being an ideal called American religious freedom, subtly transforming their own identities and traditions in the process. In a post-9/11 world, Wenger reflects, public attention to religious freedom and its implications is as consequential as it has ever been.

About the Author

Tisa Wenger, associate professor of American religious history at Yale University, is the author of We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom.
For more information about Tisa Wenger, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

“Wenger asks: What are Americans really talking about when they talk about religious freedom? In part, they are invoking one of the United States’s ‘signal contributions to the larger causes of liberty and democracy around the world.’ Equally relevant is the inverse of that question: What are Americans not talking about when we talk about religious freedom? That is, what concerns and issues are typically masked by religious freedom discourse? Race and empire—terms that do not harmonize quite as well with the American Dream—are often just below the surface of national conversations about religious freedom, Wenger finds.” --Los Angeles Review of Books

"A convincing and illuminating book about a little-studied facet of American religious history."--Publishers Weekly

"Theoretically informed, brilliantly argued, clearly organized, carefully evidenced, beautifully written, and wonderfully textured, Religious Freedom is an important book. Exploring the triangulation of religion, race, and empire--and how they are mutually shaped--Tisa Wenger has advanced our understanding of the dilemma of religious freedom."--David Chidester, author of Empire of Religion

"Tisa Wenger has crafted a riveting account of how the Western deployment of religious freedom emerged within the immanent frame of empire. As she examines transnational networks of race, colonialism, and religion, Wenger elucidates the historical and theoretical conundrums of civilizing missions, Indigeneity, democratization, subaltern agencies, and modern terrors that have rendered freedom of religion as a global formation. This is surely the high-water mark of interdisciplinary scholarship on religious freedom, and it sets a new standard."--Sylvester Johnson, author of African American Religions, 1500-2000

"In this ambitious and impressive book, Tisa Wenger makes the compelling argument that American religious freedom is inseparable from the logics of race and empire. Broadly imagined and painstakingly researched, Religious Freedom will be of value to general readers and scholars alike."--Tracy Fessenden, author of Culture and Redemption